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@theweekend: Fulham’s Toon-around, Keane’s Return, James Milner & more

January 23, 2012

Our weekly dose of chalkboard analysis from the Premier League at the weekend…

Fulham 5-2 Newcastle : Baird Helps Murphy & Johnson Create Turnaround…

We said at half-time that we needed to show character and a desire to play for the Club and for the team. […] And then if you score five goals in 45 minutes of football it’s not bad!

– Fulham manager, Martin Jol (via fulhamfc.com)

Craven Cottage witnessed another remarkable turnaround on Saturday as Fulham recovered from an abject first-half showing to score five second-half goals and claim all three points against Newcastle. The Magpies were good value for their one goal lead at the interval, with only Fulham goalie David Stockdale – under the watching eye of Fabio Capello – keeping the hosts in the game. Stockdale was repeatedly stretched as he repelled five of Newcastle’s six on-target attempts in the opening 45′ (a period in which Fulham engineered a paltry one shot), although he could do nothing about Dannie Guthrie’s (#8) sweetly-struck 25-yard strike just shy of the break…

That Newcastle were so dominant in the opening 45′ owed a lot to the performance of central-midfielder Yohan Cabaye. The Frenchman not only dictated the pace of the game when in possession (37/43 passes, 86% accuracy, including four key passes into Fulham’s area), but was also adept at reading Fulham’s passing patterns and breaking up play with interceptions, making an astonishing nine interceptions prior to the interval. His performance did fade after the break however (no doubt thanks to Chris Baird’s introduction, see below), making just 14 passes (from 21 attempted, 66% accuracy) in the second 45′ as the game rather dramatically slipped from Newcastle’s grasp…

We switched off in a 15-20 minute period and that is unlike us. […] We talked about being on our guard in the second half but just didn’t defend well at all.

– Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew (via nufc.co.uk)

That the Whites were able to engineer an unexpected five-goal haul in the period came down to more than Bobby Zamora’s creation (three assists) and hat-trick hero Clint Dempsey’s finishing (three shots, three goals) – although those two did play undoubtedly key roles. More pressingly, a first-half injury to Steve Sidwell brought about the introduction of striker Andy Johnson and a shift to 4-4-2 with Johnson joining Zamora up front. Johnson’s pace and energy not only broke up and disrupted the previously well-organised Newcastle defence – a source of frustration for Alan Pardew (see above) – but also complimented Zamora, with the pair regularly linking up and creating the chances from which Fulham won the game. For Fulham fans it will be refreshing to see their side take their chances for once, but also in how they limited Newcastle to speculative long-range efforts – Hatem Ben Arfa’s nifty consolation goal aside – throughout the second 45’…

After Steve Sidwell went off injured, we needed someone who was composed and could keep it simple, like Chrissy [Baird]. That paid off. – Jol

That Fulham were able to restrict Newcastle so well came down to a half-time reshuffle, with Chris Baird replacing Bryan Ruiz and performing the holding-midfield duties. This proved hugely important to Fulham’s turnaround with Baird performed his covering duties admirably, making three interceptions and winning four of his five challenges in the 45′ minutes that he featured…

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Baird’s introduction was Fulham’s string-puller Danny Murphy, who was afforded the freedom to play higher up the pitch, thus gaining a greater influence on proceedings. Murphy, so often at the heart of Fulham’s better performances, made more passes in his own final third (25%) than in Newcastle’s half (21%) in the first period, but following Baird’s introduction at the interval, Murphy made just 12% of his passes in his own final third and 40% of his passes in Newcastle’s half. As can also be seen below, Murphy clearly enjoyed Baird’s presence by drifting further from the middle and making numerous passes down the flanks, with his string-pulling influence consequently spread across the Craven Cottage turf. Five-goals for Fulham were to follow…

Stoke 1-2 WBA : Away Comforts for Hodgson’s Travel-Happy Baggies…

James Morrison and Graham Dorrans caught the eye with long-range strikes as Roy Hodgson’s West Brom left it late to win for the fifth time on the road this season – remarkably, only the top three have won more games on their travels this campaign. That Morrison and Dorrans scored with long-rangers was no surprise – the duo fired off nine shots from outside of the Stoke area over the ninety minutes…

West Brom’s victory was undoubtedly aided by their ability to deal with Rory Delap’s throw-ins – not one of Delap’s touchline launches was successful. Furthermore, Stoke did not help themselves by losing eight ground challenges (tackles) in their own half…

Against a team like Stoke, the ball is in your box a lot and a lot of times you can’t stop it coming in. You just have to hope you can deal with it and the knockdowns fall kindly for you.

– West Brom manager, Roy Hodgson (via wba.co.uk)

Roy Hodgson also deserves praise for instructing his defence to play the ball out from the back when possible. Against Stoke it can be very tempting to get sucked into an “avert the siege” mentality and clear your lines at the earliest opportunity, but WBA only looked to clear the ball once it was in dangerous positions (their area), hence just eight clearances from outside of their penalty box. By contrast Stoke, traditionally far more direct, cleared the ball from outside of their own area in the region of forty times! This had the effect of regularly surrendering possession back to the visitors, who enjoyed more shots-on-target (5 to 2) over the ninety minutes and were just about good value for the three points…

Wolves 2-3 Aston Villa : Keane Catches Eye On Mick’s Day To Forget…

That Villa emerged victorious from their local derby with Wolves can obviously be attributed to a fine pair of strikes from Robbie Keane, but also to some remarkable clearance statistics from central-defenders James Collins and Richard Dunne. Collins attempted 22 clearances and Dunne 19 as the duo tried to keep Wolves from their door…

With two goals and the three points, I’d like to think I helped in this game.

– Aston Villa’s Robbie Keane (via avfc.co.uk)

Although the duo’s defensive endeavours failed to secure a clean sheet, it was enough to ensure that Villa at least weren’t outscored by their rivals. Robbie Keane’s two superb finishes ensured the spoils went to the visitors, although it was his build-up play that was arguably more impressive and influential on the game as a whole, especially with Stephen Ireland missing through injury. Keane completed 44 of 54 passes (high figures for a striker) as he willingly dropped back to the midfield to help with Villa’s approach play. The goals, including the 84th-minute winner, were the least his efforts deserved…

There wasn’t a lot more that could have gone wrong in the game. A penalty, a sending off, someone carried off. And then we end up with a wonder-strike from Robbie Keane which is sod’s law. I don’t know where Lady Luck was today but she wasn’t in a gold shirt that’s for sure.

– Wolves manager, Mick McCarthy (via wolves.co.uk)

For Villa, and manager Alex McLeish in particular, the three points were undoubtedly welcome. For Wolves however, it was another set-back in what is turning out to be a frustrating season. With fifty minutes gone, the hosts were 2-1 up and Arsenal loanee Emmanuel Frimpong was producing the sort of performance that Mick McCarthy’s side will need if they wish to maintain their Premier League status. Frimpong was both constructively and destructively efficient, having found a teammate with 19 of his 23 passes (a good accuracy of 83%, albeit expected for an Arsenal youth graduate) including the assist for Michael Kightly’s 21st-minute equaliser, as well as having made four interceptions and having won four of five challenges prior to his unfortunate injury just shy of the hour mark. Frimpong departed barely five minutes after Keane had brought the scores back to 2-2 on 51′, and boss McCarthy was to endure further frustration as Karl Henry saw red for a petulant kick on Marc Albrighton before Keane’s late winner. McCarthy will be disappointed with how things panned out on Saturday, and knows better is required from his troops in coming weeks. Having the likes of Frimpong and Jamie O’Hara fit again will undoubtedly help…

Man City 3-2 Tottenham : Milner Stamps Authority In Yaya’s Absence…

It was not a great day for goalkeepers on Eastlands with Joe Hart and Brad Friedel managing just one save each and a combined five goals conceded, although there was little Hart could have done about Bale’s peach of a strike to make it 2-2. Bale’s was the fourth goal in a frenetic nine-minute spell after Samir Nasri’s 56th-minute opening goal – a product of the now-customary patient City build-up play, centred on intricate passing and deft movement. City truly are a joy to watch at times…

There was little doubt in many circles that City would miss Yaya Touré whilst he is on ACoN duty this month, although yesterday Gareth Barry and James Milner combined well to minimise the impact of the Ivorian’s absence. Barry was his customary efficient self, completing 65 of his 71 passes at an impressive accuracy of 92%, although the vast majority are lateral passes that help maintain possession rather than incisive passes that create scoring opportunities for others. It is, nonetheless, an important role, and when coupled with the endless energy of James Milner, works very nicely indeed. Milner showed some deft touches and nimble movement whilst completing 82% of his 61 passes, and in an impressive all round display also made three interceptions, one block, three clearances and won five of six challenges as he and Barry gave the likes of Nasri and David Silva a platform upon which to sparkle. Milner also set the marauding Micah Richards free down the right a number of times, a combination which might be worth watching in the coming weeks…

He [Roberto Mancini] was not happy at the gift of the first goal and the lack of concentration that allowed Spurs back into the game so soon after City had established the lead.  He made himself clear in no uncertain terms.

– Manchester City coach, David Platt (via mcfc.co.uk)

One player they undoubtedly are missing however is defensive lynchpin Vincent Kompany. Having conceded a miserly four goals in their ten games at Eastlands prior to hosting Spurs, shipping two goals in one outing – albeit to one of the league’s most potent attacking forces – in Kompany’s absence served to confirm the importance of their Belgian skipper to City’s cause. Stand-in centre-back, young Montenegrin Stefan Savić, hardly covered himself in glory either – attempting just one tackle all afternoon as well as misjudging a header which sent Jermain Defoe through on goal unchallenged for the strike which kickstarted Tottenham’s fight-back…

Further forward for City, however, Silva once again sparkled with the perfectly-weighted assist for Nasri’s goal, a superb run and cut-back for Sergio Agüero’s blocked effort on 18′, and a number of other typically incisive passes. With thirteen assists to his name for the season – five more than any other PL player – Silva’s form shows no sign of abating, and with just one of their next nine league opponents being a fellow top four chasing rival (Chelsea), there is every chance Roberto Mancini’s side will have stretched their lead at the top by the time they travel to the Emirates in early April…

Arsenal 1-2 Man United : United Out-Flank Exposed Gunners…

United’s approach to beating Arsenal was no surprise given the paucity of options at full-back for Arsène Wenger to choose from – the visitors attacked down the flanks, frequently and with purpose. Both United’s goals came from such routes, with Ryan Giggs (#11) crossing past a spatially-generous Johan Djourou for Antonio Valencia to nod home United’s first, and the Ecuadorian (#25) then skipping past Andrei Arshavin and the out-of-position Thomas Vermaelen (not a natural left-back) en route to setting up Danny Welbeck for the winning goal…

I think (our gameplan) was to go straight forward, it makes a lot of pressure on the left-back and the right-back and that’s what we did.

– Manchester United’s Patrice Evra (via manutd.com)

That this was United’s gameplan had been signposted throughout the early stages of the game, with Giggs and fellow central-midfielder Michael Carrick (who was exemplary in possession, completing 50/55 passes at 91%) regularly spreading the ball wide. Luís Nani tormented Djourou – normally a centre-back – down United’s left flank, winning five of seven attempted take-ons with such ease and dominance that Djourou registered just one solitary attempted tackle (which came near the half-way line in the fourth minute) before being hauled off by Wenger during the interval…

Valencia is back to his best form now. […] He tries to go past his man most of the time but he’s clever enough to come inside and can pass a ball. He’s a good passer actually. He’s got a lot going for him.

– Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson (via manutd.com)

In spite of Nani’s seeming prominance however, the Portuguese star stretched his unproductive run to a fifth league game without a goal or assist, having been bumped to the left-flank (from where he is struggling to score or assist) as an apparent victim of Valencia’s superb form down United’s right. Valencia meanwhile contributed a goal and superbly crafted match-winning assist against the Gunners to give him two goals and eight assists in the nine games since returning from injury – a spell where productivity has occured even when playing as a makeshift right-back (he was indeed stationed at RB when he created Welbeck’s winner). The Ecuadorian even takes time out to contribute defensively, attempting ten challenges over the ninety minutes against Arsenal. On such form it is easy to understand why Sir Alex Ferguson rates him so highly…

I can understand that the fans are upset about the substitution, especially when it doesn’t work, but I made the right decision at the start of the game [in starting Oxlade-Chamberlain]. He had started [to] fatigue, stretched his calf and he was sick in the week.

– Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger (via arsenal.com)

For Arsenal and Arsène Wenger however, things are not going quite so swimmingly, with the Gunners suffering a third consecutive defeat. There were a few sources of joy though – Laurent Koscielny (#6) continues to impress in central defence, and his superb tackle sparked the breathtaking counter-attack [below left] from which Arsenal equalised, whilst 18-year-old starlet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sparkled on his first league start for the club. Chamberlain (#15) provided Robin van Persie (#10) with a perfectly weighted pass for Arsenal’s leveller and also made three further successful key passes into United’s area before his seemingly premature substitution drew a look of dismay from van Persie and, for Wenger, the ire of many Emirates regulars. In nearly twenty minutes of pitch-time, his replacement – the out-of-form Andrei Arshavin – made zero challenges/tackles, zero interceptions, zero blocks, had zero shots and made just six successful passes, five of which were backwards and none of which were in the vicinity of United’s area [below right]. At least Wenger had the compunction to admit (see above) that the switch hadn’t worked out…

MORE CHALKBOARD ANALYSIS TO FOLLOW…

Visit guardian.co.uk/football/chalkboards to make your own chalkboards…

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